Letters from Maine

Do scare tactics work?


I suspect that you have heard about or maybe read the recent Associated Press story reporting that four daycare workers in Hamilton, Miss., have been charged with felony child abuse for intentionally scaring the children “who didn’t clean up or act good” by wearing a Halloween mask and yelling in their faces. I can have some sympathy for those among us who choose to spend their days tending a flock of sometimes unruly and mischievous toddlers and preschoolers. But, I think one would be hard pressed to find very many adults who would condone the strategy of these misguided daycare providers. Not surprisingly, the parents of some of these children describe their children as traumatized and having disordered sleep.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The news report of this incident in Mississippi doesn’t tell us if these daycare providers had used this tactic in the past. One wonders whether they had found less dramatic verbal threats just weren’t as effective as they had hoped and so decided to go all out.

How effective is fear in changing behavior? Certainly, we have all experienced situations in which a frightening experience has caused us to avoid places, people, and activities. But, is a fear-focused strategy one that health care providers should include in their quiver as we try to mold patient behavior? As luck would have it, 2 weeks before this news story broke I encountered a global study from 84 countries that sought to answer this question (Affect Sci. 2022 Sep. doi: 10.1007/s42761-022-00128-3).

Using the WHO four-point advice about COVID prevention (stay home/avoid shops/use face covering/isolate if exposed) as a model the researchers around the world reviewed the responses of 16,000 individuals. They found that there was no difference in the effectiveness of the message whether it was framed as a negative (“you have so much to lose”) or a positive (“you have so much to gain”). However, investigators observed that the negatively framed presentations generated significantly more anxiety in the respondents. The authors of the paper conclude that if there is no significant difference in the effectiveness, why would we chose a negatively framed presentation that is likely to generate anxiety that we know is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. From a purely public health perspective, it doesn’t make sense and is counterproductive.

I guess if we look back to the old carrot and stick metaphor we shouldn’t be surprised by the findings in this paper. If one’s only goal is to get a group of young preschoolers to behave by scaring the b’geezes out of them with a mask or a threat of bodily punishment, then go for it. Scare tactics will probably work just as well as offering a well-chosen reward system. However, the devil is in the side effects. It’s the same argument that I give to parents who argue that spanking works. Of course it does, but it has a narrow margin for safety and can set up ripples of negative side effects that can destroy healthy parent-child relationships.

The bottom line of this story is the sad truth that somewhere along the line someone failed to effectively train these four daycare workers. But, do we as health care providers need to rethink our training? Have we forgotten our commitment to “First do no harm?” As we craft our messaging have we thought enough about the potential side effects of our attempts at scaring the public into following our suggestions?

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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